Why is Boston Called “Beantown”?

Mark Mancini

Boston Public Library 

Which nickname sounds a bit out of place: “The Athens of America,” “The Cradle of Liberty,” “The Hub of the Universe,” or “Beantown”? New England’s largest city goes by all four aliases, yet the last one sticks out like a sore thumb. So, how did Boston get such an odd title in the first place?

There’s no definite answer, but this hasn’t stopped historians from speculating. One theory hinges on the fact that Massachusetts has long been noted for its baked beans, a tradition dating back to her Native American roots. However, in the late 1600s, the area was synonymous with a very different product: rum. Along with their neighbors in Rhode Island, Massachusites distilled alcohol en masse, enabling their colony to break into the notorious “Triangle Trade.” Boston’s booze was usually taken to Africa, where it would be exchanged for new slaves. They, in turn, were later traded for (among other things) molasses, a key ingredient in rum.

But molasses served another culinary function: colonists started putting it in their baked beans. Though the natives had traditionally used maple syrup instead, this new preparation method spread like wildfire in the greater Boston area. Eventually—according to legend—sailors and merchants on the triangular route began calling the city “Bean Town.”

Another story paints a very different picture. Boston hosted a Civil War veterans' convention during the summer of 1890. To commemorate this gathering, the Beverly Pottery Company handed out small, ribbon-bound bean pots as souvenirs. Afterwards, when asked where they’d gotten such neat little gifts, many of the vets supposedly replied “bean-town.”

Then again, perhaps a publicity gimmick is to blame. In 1907, Boston threw its first annual Old Home Week. Former residents who’d since left the area were encouraged to revisit their old haunts during a week-long celebration. An aggressive advertising campaign helped draw continental attention to the event, with posters and stickers being distributed nationwide, many of which included wholesome sketches of bean pots. As the yearly shindig grew, tourism slogans like “You Don’t Know Beans Until You Come to Boston” also started catching on. Theoretically, “beantown” might’ve been born in the process.